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What do scouts look for in NFL wide receiver prospects?

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Keep these in mind when you watch college wide receivers

NFL: New York Giants at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 3 of our scouting series, we dive into the wide receiver position. It used to be that receivers often didn’t hit their stride until their third NFL season, but with three and four wide receivers on the field at once at the college and pro level now a very high percentage of the time, rookie wideouts are asked to contribute right away. Since the amazing 2014 class, many highly drafted players at this position have struggled in the NFL. Why could that be? Let’s examine more closely.

Many make the mistake that if a wide receiver is big and fast that he immediately becomes a top NFL prospect. Having a terrific big muscular body for the position and running a great 40-yard dash time are wonderful attributes, but it doesn’t always translate to success in the league. We are seeing more and more taller receivers that run well in a straight line, but aren’t great at changing directions, fall lower and lower in the draft. Offenses are based on timing and need to get the ball out quick. NFL passing games want quick-hitting routes rather than long developing ones downfield. Being able to abuse coverage with slants and out routes over and over is more valuable than a receiver that can occasionally win deep downfield.

Speed is great without question and true speedsters that know how to use it terrify defensive coordinators. But in today’s NFL, it is better to be quick with great acceleration out of a break or a cut. If you look at all the players at this position that have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you might be shocked that a good percentage of them are not elite speedsters. Instead, they show the attributes listed below.

3. Beating The Press

It is well known in the scouting community that when watching tape of college wide receiver prospects, it is imperative to analyze every snap against press man coverage. Often at the college level, receivers see very little in-your-face physical man coverage, so watching what we can and analyzing it very closely is extremely important. Because you know what happens when a rookie receiver enters the league? Well, they are often doing battle with excellent man coverage cornerbacks. This is almost a right of passage and wide receivers must show the ability to win at the line of scrimmage and make defensive coordinators pay for playing them in this manner. Sure, there are ways to use formation and motion offensively to help receivers get away from press. But the problem is when the book is written that a wideout can’t get off the jam, the opponent knows this as well. One of the first things a receiver needs to do at the NFL level is to win against outstanding press man coverage. Otherwise, young receivers can fade away fast in this league.

2. Route Running

To say a wide receiver is a great “Route Runner” means a lot of different things and there are a wide variety of routes that are run, some of which accentuate different skill sets. But those wide receivers that have been most successful of late early in their career are the “Route Runners.” These are guys who are exceptional coming out of their breaks without losing too much speed, have repetitive and repeatable routes time after time so their quarterback knows where they are going to be and can create separation by setting up a cover man and making every route look the same from the beginning. Cornerbacks and safeties are smart in the NFL and can read route tells extremely well. Many of the recent early-round busts at this position came from wide-open spread attacks that only asked the wide receivers to run a few routes and when these young receivers adjusted to the league, they were just not close to being well-rounded enough in all aspects of running an NFL route tree.

1. Ball Skills

While gaining separation through great route running is fantastic, there are some great receivers like DeAndre Hopkins that just win time and time again at the catch point despite not gaining a lot of separation. “Ball Skills” is a combination of how a pass-catcher uses his body to shield defenders and put himself in the best position to haul in the football combined with showing soft, reliable hands to catch the ball away from his frame. In the end, if a wide receiver has everything else you want at the position but can’t consistently bring the ball in and gain yardage, he isn’t much good to his team.